Working at home: My tech essentials

After working from home for more than 20 years, Jack Wallen shares the services, software, hardware, and networking setup that makes his work and life easier.

Freelancer with mug using laptop near dog

Image: TechRepublic/Jack Wallen

After reading my post Working from home: Lessons learned over 20+ years, you may have come away with questions. That's understandable, given just how unsure everything is in the world at the moment. Since we're not only having to stay at home to remain safe due to the coronavirus, many people are working from home for the first time. This doesn't come naturally for most and, even if you do get the hang of it mentally, there's also the issue of having the right technology in place.

I'm not going to cast any supposition here, or offer up what I believe are the "best practices" for working at home. Why? Because, truth be told, every situation is different. Couple that with the fact that we've been placed in the precarious state of having to scramble and improvise, claiming there are "best practices" is overshooting the problem.

There are best practices, but those ideas tend to be applied in ideal circumstances. As we are nowhere near ideal at the moment, here is the tech that I use for working from home--you'll be surprised at how "off the shelf" it is.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

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It's all about services when working from home

10 years ago, working from home was vastly different. Now it's all about services—specifically, the cloud.

Everything I do at home begins and ends with the cloud. Without Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Gmail, my work wouldn't be impossible, but it would certainly be considerably less easy. Of course, I'm a freelancer, so the tools I use are up to me. 

Your company may not work with the Google ecosystem; instead, you might be accustomed to tossing around Microsoft Office documents back and forth, or collaborating with them on a network share inside the LAN. 

There are two ways you can make that work: 

  • A VPN

  • Google Drive

It might well be company policy that you must use a VPN, but given these are extenuating circumstances, there's no reason why your company should balk at you uploading those collaborative documents to your Google Drive account and sharing them out with your fellow workers. After all, that negates the need to count on the less-than-reliable VPN technology. For luddites, or those not so adept at adopting new technology, using Google Drive is probably the easiest solution to get up and running. 

I've collaborated with countless people using Google Drive. Never have I ever had a problem. Ever.

On the rare occasion Google Drive won't do the trick--such as when a client doesn't have or want a Google account, yet still needs to collaborate on a project--I turn to either Dropbox or Nextcloud. Both do a fantastic job of file sharing, with Nextcloud adding in a host of other features to make it a near full-blown replacement for the Google ecosystem.

When things turn to teleconferencing, there's really only one solution: Zoom. Zoom is an outstanding teleconference service that can work with all platforms (Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS) and offers plenty of controls and features to make those remote meetings simple and effective. 

Software for my work from home setup

Outside of the Google landscape of services, I also depend on some software titles to get me through the day. The obvious goes to Firefox—or whichever web browser you prefer. Let's face it, without a web browser, you won't be getting much done.

Next in line comes VirtualBox. I do a lot of testing on operating systems. Although your gig might not require you to test Linux distributions or various incarnations of Windows, your office might require you to use an OS that you don't have at home. If you're an Apple house, and your work requires Windows, you might have to install a tool that will allow you to spin up a virtual instance of that corporate-approved OS.

Other pieces of software I use are:

  • The GIMP: For creating and editing images

  • Bitwarden: For protecting my passwords

  • Multipass: For virtual machine development

  • LibreOffice: For local document editing/formatting

  • Slack: For messaging/collaborating

  • Spotify: For listening to music (when I'm not listening to vinyl)

Hardware for my work from home setup

Almost always, the hardware is second to the software and services that you use--if you have a computer, you're good to go. However, there are bits of tech that can make your life easier. Here's my short list of hardware, which should get you by, too:

  • A good desktop computer: You don't want to have to work on a laptop all day.

  • A webcam: I use the Razer Kiyo, as it has incredible resolution and a built-in ring light.

  • A pair of headphones and a mic: When talking with coworkers, there might be times you won't want those around you to hear the other end of the conversation—sensitive company information and all.

  • A printer/scanner: For when you need to print out a document, sign it, and scan it so you can send it back. 

A reliable network

When you're working from home, the last thing you need to deal with is a less-than-reliable network connection. One of the things I've done is set up two backup mesh networks (using the Linksys Velop). Both depend on the same internet connectivity, but I've found over the years that one of the least reliable pieces of hardware in the network chain is the router; to solve that problem, I have three different networks to choose from in my home:

  • The regular router

  • Two different mesh networks

When one network has problems, I switch to another. Unless my ISP connection goes down, I never am without a usable network. But, on the off-chance that does happen, I can always tether my desktop to my phone. That's my last-ditch effort (because of data prices), but in a pinch it'll work.

That's all, folks

This short list is what gets me by every day. I've been working from home like this for a very long time, and it's rare that I run into problems. Your situation (and your mileage) will vary.

Most importantly, you need to be patient. For some, it's not easy making the transition from working in a office to working from home. Give yourself a bit of time to make the adjustments. But trust me, you'll get the hang of it. Once you do, you might find yourself not wanting to leave your stay-at-home office situation. 

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